Occasionally I’ll come across a website that completely discards many conventional design philosophies. I always wonder what compelled them to do this. Are they just trying to stand out? Was there a designer with a strong vision and the means to make it happen? Are they trying to establish a new standard or did they just see something cool and run with it? Regardless, any time you get away from established elements that put users in a comfort zone, you’re running a serious risk. Even if it looks good initially, how does it hold up when people try to use it? When users try to dig deeper and browse the site, can they find what they’re looking for without the traditional visual cues?

For even just these reasons alone, companies tend to play it safe. They figure as long as they don’t turn the customer off then their content or brand will be good enough to keep people coming to their site. This is why we see so few truly unique browsing experiences, especially with big name companies. The upside isn’t nearly as bad as the potential fallout of a failed experience. So when I saw Wired’s new layout, I thought it was a bold move. After clicking, scrolling and swiping around (of course I checked it on my phone too), I was impressed but still concerned that it was risky. Then I came across their own write-up of everything that went into the new layout. It’s obvious they know what they are doing because they managed to get rid of most of the risk. How? They talked to the users.

…¬†we start with our ‘Why?’ phase – researching anything we can about what we’re attempting to achieve for the wired.co.uk site, including how it is already being used. This means that once we get to the ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ stages, we know the goals we’re trying to achieve, and we have data to back up any assumptions we’re making for our concepts.

Anybody can look at analytics and get an idea of where to start a redesign. The real key is including User Testing early and often. Instead of assuming what users will think, they setup a Panel Workshop to see how user opinions changed based on different information. They then used this information to shape which features stayed and which they discarded. But they still weren’t done. They built a prototype based on their findings and then setup more user testing.

The detailed answers and opinions, coupled with the data gathered about exactly how the users were interacting with the page helped the team fine-tune both the timeline and the navigation

Still not quite satisfied, they made modifications and did more user testing, including tasked-based testing. Could the user easily accomplish the most common tasks? When they were finally confident they moved on to the second half of the equation: performance and stability. I won’t dive deeply into this part because it merits it’s own post, but it’s important to note that all of the interaction and layout detail gets tossed out the window if the site doesn’t perform well.

Take a few minutes to read their original article because it shows how much time, effort and discovery really goes into creating something so innovative. It also shows how just being creative isn’t enough. We shouldn’t be designing things based on what we like, it’s all about the users. If they are part of the process, you greatly reduce the risk of disappointing them with the final product.